When a Joke Goes Wrong

Yesterday I received an email from someone I know on the internet only. This person and I have exchanged a few emails in the last few days. At the end of my last email to him I found myself having to apologise for sounding bitchy, which I told him was really frustration. In his reply he said that I didn’t come across as bitchy at all and then he gave me an example of “real” bitchiness.

He had chosen an example that leaned (heavily) towards suicide. Deep inside I knew that he was only joking, but he didn’t actually say that until the very end. The example was long. The further I read, the more distressed I got. My mind couldn’t distinguish for sure if he was seriously telling me that he was suicidal or that there was another reason for telling me this stuff. Inside, I felt nauseated and confused. Several times I stopped reading and went to delete the email, but then I thought that he might be serious and I couldn’t ignore that … so I kept reading.

Six months ago, I probably would have thought nothing of the email. I would have taken it for what it was – light hearted messing around. But yesterday, having open wounds from having a son die by suicide only five months ago, it felt like the words physically abused me. By that, I don’t mean the person who wrote them, I mean the actual words themselves. It was like torture.

The words ended, the writer turned to the real reason for emailing me and all was well. For him. For me, the “joke” left me in such a state that I found it difficult to concentrate and I remained physically ill in the stomach for hours. The “joke” wasn’t funny. Not in the slightest.

Last night, I had to reply to the real section of the email. I thought about what I’d say about the “example of bitchiness” for the longest time. I wavered between ignoring it altogether and expressing as quickly and as politely as I could that it didn’t come over well. I did both (deleting and then retyping the section in question when I changed my mind, more than once). Finally, I decided that I had to let him know that his words hurt me. So eventually I reminded him of my loss and that as my suffering is still only in the beginning stages, I found his words distressing. I left it at that.

As it happens, I had to email him twice last night. This morning I expected to find a reply in my inbox (concerning the real reason for emailing), but didn’t get one. Now I’m left wondering if my words hurt him, or does he feel ashamed, or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t know what to say to me. On the other hand, maybe he’s busy and hasn’t even seen the emails yet. Whatever the reason, I don’t need this added pressure. I shouldn’t have to deal with it.

What’s the point of this post?

No matter how wacky your sense of humour, no matter how funny you think something is, remember that not everyone is the same. Remember to think about what’s going on in the other person’s life before you “joke” with them. You might mean it light heartedly, you might only be trying to get them to smile, you might do it for the purest of reasons, but sometimes we have to avoid certain sensitive subjects. I know that I’ve said on this blog that people should be themselves at all times. I stand by that, but please use some common sense.

Think about the consequences of your actions…or in this case, your words. You might be ripping the heart out of someone that you really didn’t want to hurt.


6 thoughts on “When a Joke Goes Wrong

  1. I’m sorry to hear that you had this experience, Karen. I worry about this kind of thing often, because there are so many things we say, quite innocently and just in the normal course of conversation (often just cliches), that in the wrong context or to the wrong person can be hurtful or distressing. They can take on a whole different meaning that we don’t intend and sometimes don’t even realize. I try never to send an email without considering it for a moment first, but it’s easy enough to miss. I’m sure I don’t catch all of them. I almost used a phrase in an email message not long ago that, when I thought about it for a second, was horribly inappropriate to the circumstances. I felt sick to my stomach that I could have sent it without realizing. Fortunately I caught it and easily re-worded the phrase in a better way.

    By all of which I am not trying to excuse the writer of the email which upset you. We should all try and think for a moment before we hit that send button. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that.

  2. I’m so sorry you got that email.

    I identify with your post and people just being rather dumb and not thinking about what they are saying. Do they think you are “over it already?” Or have they themselves already forgotten the tragedy in your life?

    I just spent hours writing an email to someone I know in real life who had not contacted me at all since my baby son died and who just left me some insensitive messages, mostly about herself. She’s not a bad person, but her insensitivity made me angry.

    I haven’t sent the email yet. I’m sort of wondering what sort of result it would get. Do I even want a reply from her? Then if I don’t get one will I be angry or upset? I do want her to know that her words aren’t helpful at all.

    best wishes

  3. I am still very sensitive to people who joke about ‘jumping off a bridge’, etc. I always think of Jim, and in the back of my mind I wonder if they’re half serious. I know they have no idea what’s running through my mind, and it isn’t rational to tell every person who does this to knock it off. But it still feels like a jab in my heart when I hear it.
    Jim used to joke about suicide by making a ‘gun’ with his hand and pointing it at his head as if to say, “Duh, that was a dumb thing I just did”. Then, he killed himself that way with a real gun. I have no idea how long he’d been thinking about suicide, probably much longer than the short time we knew each other.

  4. Sherry, I know the writer of the email didn’t intend to distress me. I knew that as soon as I knew for sure that it wasn’t a serious suicide letter (because that’s how it came across to me). The words really did upset me, but my opinion of the person hasn’t changed in any way. He’s a prankster. He wanted to make me laugh, but I think he forgot my situation. I can, and have, forgiven him for that.

    RP, I believe you guessed it right. I believe in this instance, the emailer forgot that I’d lost my son to suicide. He probably feels terrible now, but I hope that doesn’t mean he’ll stop his usual banter with me. Did you end up sending that email?

    Moonbeam, when someone jokes around about “killing themselves” it’s like a lightening bolt strikes inside your head, isn’t it?!? Many people say “I’ll kill myself if I do that again”. It means nothing, but to a suicide survivor it sets off alarm bells. I never realised just how easily the words are said. When a person truly means them, the meaning can easily be lost on the listener because of this. I’m so sorry that you still suffer so much from Jim’s death. {{hugs}}

  5. Karen, no I didn’t send the email. It helped me write it though, as I was getting angry with the person in question and writing it down helped me to let go of some of the anger. It was too long anyway. I did bump into the person’s husband and managed to tell him that the person’s messages weren’t helpful.

    You are a very good writer, I’m hooked on the story you are telling at the moment.

    best wishes

  6. I haven’t sent the letter I wrote some weeks ago, either. Part of me wants to, part of me doesn’t. As you say, it did help to write it though.

    Thank you for the compliment on my writing. That means a lot to me, for many reasons.

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